On February 6th (2012), NBC will be debuting a new musical drama series, titled Smash, and they’re hoping to drum up a bit of positive, pre-emptive buzz by making the pilot episode available for free through various online sources from now until the official broadcast. Bless ‘em.
For those who don’t know, this Glee-for-grown-ups stars Debra Messing as ‘Julia Houston’, a songwriter/lyricist who is inspired to start collaborating with her long time writing partner, ‘Tom Levitt’ (Christian Borle), on a musical about Marilyn Monroe… who is quite the hot property right now, n’est-ce pas? Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty play ‘Karen Cartwright’ and ‘Ivy Lynn’, two talented young actresses, competing for the coveted lead role… Anjelica Huston plays ‘Eileen Rand’, the musical’s hard-nosed producer, who is pushing ahead with the project, despite being embroiled in a messy divorce… and Jack Davenport plays ‘Derek Wills’, the musical’s brilliant but belligerent director.
I’d forgotten how adorable Messing could be, and she’s very amusing here as a more subdued and focussed incarnation of a plucky little redhead named ‘Grace Adler’… I know that’s reductive of me, but the first time we meet Julia she’s bantering with a gay man in a fancy New York apartment, so it’s rather hard not to make the comparison! She has great chemistry with Borle, and their scenes together just fizz along… but the show really skimps on their actual creative process. Seriously, it’s like one minute they mention working up a demo for a song, and then in the blink of an eye the show has a producer, a director, and they’re casting for actresses! Who knew that knocking out the score and book for a full Broadway musical would be so effortless! And it’s a shame, because the two characters have such a great rapport, I could have happily spent more time with them, bickering around the piano… but I guess that’s not the show they wanted to make, so I’ll just have to lump it. Julia’s husband and son are a total drag… in the same way that Lund’s family were a drag in the first series of The Killing. The fun (for me at least) lies in seeing skilled professionals do what they’re best at, not watching them have boring domestics with their significant others. At one point Julia asks her son what springs to mind when he hears the name “Marilyn”, and he replies “Baltimore” (a city in the state of Maryland)… which means he’s either a moron, or has the worst sense of humour ever… either way, he should shut up.
Hilty makes a phenomenal Marilyn, and her performances in the semi-realised production numbers that intersperse the story were easily the high point of the episode for me… to the extent that I would much rather watch the show-within-a-show, than the drama around it! Hell, they could just screen her “baseball number” on a loop for forty-six minutes, and I’d love it. Fun fact: The original concept was for each season to follow the production of a new musical, so that if any of them proved to be “stage-worthy”, they could be spun-off into actual Broadway shows! Seeing Ivy dolled up in character as Miss Monroe so often, leads you to assume that she’s a shoe-in for the role, but we don’t really learn much about her life outside of the musical sequences… while, at the opposite end of the scale, we have to slog though endless scenes of Karen kvetching to her boring boyfriend/parents, without ever really seeing any evidence that she deserves the role at all. I mean, she shows up for her big audition in sloppy casual clothes and sings a Christina Aguilera song, for f*ck’s sake! Derek finds this amusing and refreshing, but to me it just seems lazy and insulting. If you’re auditioning to play Marilyn Monroe, shouldn’t you make some effort to actually prove you can play Marilyn Monroe? You wouldn’t show up for an interview at Coca Cola drinking a can of Pepsi, would you? Gah! Nothing against McPhee, but at this point Karen just seems slightly superfluous… I mean, it seems like Derek only gave her a call-back to piss off Tom and Julia (who favour Ivy for the role), and because he’s hoping to shag her at some point. Which may be an insightful and satirical comment on how casting decisions get made in the real world, but it makes for pretty tedious TV, because there just didn’t seem to be much of a character there to latch on to or root for, really… we know she wants to be an actress, and that her parents don’t really approve, but don’t really object either… and we know she has a cute, supportive, financially secure boyfriend. Blah! The scene-let where Ivy tries to tell her mother about her big (potential) break over the phone, and finds herself deflated by the (unheard) apathy on the other end of the line, was far more effective, because it was so short and sharp.
I watched the pilot several hours ago, and enjoyed it at the time, but I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for the next instalment… and the supposedly enticing teaser shown at the end of this episode was actually a bit of a turn-off. Apparently this season will only be 15 episodes long, so I suspect I’ll keep watching it through to the finale, if only for the fact that Uma Thurman will apparently be appearing for a five episode arc at some point. Hurrah! Overall, it’s an interesting, (fairly) original concept and a great showcase for some very talented women, with a sprinkling of fun songs… definitely worth checking out sometime, but not really “appointment viewing”, as yet.
P.S. The apartments really are gorgeous though!